Say Anything - Say Anything
Record Label: RCA
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Aside from hyping their latest release to a point that would make the creators of Waterworld blush, Say Anything have taken every dial they could grasp and turned the knob down to a position distant from 11. Every element that made their two previous endeavors phenomenal has been stripped and redone in a way that feels very hastily conceived. First off, this is, by no means, a bad album. For all its flaws, this album is still Say Anything and is still one of the better releases in a great year for music. However, it's hard to not take this record in the context of its predecessors and ignore the obvious decline in quality.
There's not a whole lot on this album to suggest that the band has deviated much from their standard mode of songwriting (i.e. Max Bemis writes everything except the drum lines). While there's no doubt ...Is a Real Boy was birthed through this method, In Defense of the Genre had a plethora of nuances that sounded like each band member decadently layering the bare bones of Bemis's songs. What made them great was that these additions usually enhanced the songs rather than bogging them down. This time everyone still brings some different stuff to the table, but not always for the better. While the simplistic four-chords of "Hate Everyone" can be excused due to its release as a single, the remaining songs on the album can't be as easily forgiven for also following the trend. There's a total lack of any complex solos or progressions throughout the entire track list and apart from the core guitar, drum, and bass-lines that hold the songs together, there isn't a whole lot of parts that really add anything to them. Even Coby Linder's thunderous drumming has degraded to become mostly background noise. The worst offenders are the electronic effects, which are annoyingly abused throughout the album's duration. On three or four tracks, the band almost completely forgoes their respective instruments and lets drum-loops and stock audio clips carry the songs. The result is a far too over-produced sound that lacks much distinction from the all the pop garbage that mars the genre.
The songs themselves aren't as creative as they should be and show Bemis and company settling into an extremely formulaic groove. In the best cases they sound far too much like Say Anything and in the worst cases they sound far too generic. What this album lacks most is the amplification from its lyrics which don't even being to approach their previous standard of excellency ("Eloise / You never meant that much to me / Let it bleed / Let it freeze"). Like the songs, there's little going on lyrically during most, and next to nothing on the rest. There are still some very clever lines and wordplay shoehorned into every song; "Hate Everyone" is, for the most part, awesome dry cleverness throughout, but that's not the threshold of Bemis's artistic capacity. I never expected him to best his greatest work but what we're presented with comes off more as the effects of laziness than him missing the mark. The worst track is easily "Crush'd"; a love song cornier than Nebraska that a songwriter in his most infantile stage may well have written to serenade a girl between History and Art Class. Even though Bemis sings the intentionally trite chorus ("I have a total crush on you baby / And I can't let it go") in a pseudo-sardonic manner, it's hard to take the song seriously at all when it's plagued with cringe-worthy verses such as ("Did it hurt when you fell from heaven girl"). The original lyric-sheet to this song is probably still damp with Max's slobber. After finding the girl of his dreams, fans are almost obligated to excuse an artist a subpar ballad or two but this one is just pathetic. While we'll never be able to compare it against all of their numerous unreleased material, "Crush'd" is, without question, the worst song of the band's major-label releases. It's still too early to tell which track is the best, but whatever it ends up being, "Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat" and "Plea" don't need to worry about being knocked off the band's 'Best-Of' list anytime soon.
Even though artists today don't have a whole lot of control over the album's production, it's still worth mentioning. The digital versions suffer from the same excessive compression almost all releases do, making all of the instruments and vocals an unholy mess of sound. However, even the vinyl version, which is noticeably more dynamic, sounds fairly average, which is somewhat of a departure for the band. Both ...Is a Real Boy and In Defense of the Genre had exceptional engineering and displayed some of the best recording and mixing I've ever heard, even through the brick-walling done there. But major record labels rarely give artists much of a say during the mastering process. The only mistake here that can be safely pinned on the band is the cheap keyboard which barely breaks the baseline for garage-sale quality.
Ultimately, only "Hate Everyone" ends up being what Bemis promised from this album; a concise and accessible version of the band that defines who they are. Despite all of the changes he's undergone, Bemis is still the same angry moralist he's always been at heart but the delivery here just isn't as vicious and it's evident why; his life's gotten too good. He's married, he's got a bigger label backing him, a much larger fan base, etc. The obsession that drove him to create his last two masterpieces simply isn't there anymore. When he was sitting in a dim apartment years ago chain smoking multiple joints a day, music was the only thing keeping this guy alive. Now amongst his success and self-actualization his artistry has become a vehicle through which he enjoys his life rather than the focus of it. In a way it's bittersweet knowing that Bemis truly being happy may come at the cost of his artistic genius.